Feature

For the last time: Congress is not exempt from ObamaCare

The GOP's claim refuses to die despite criticism from both left and right

Republicans have yet to dismantle or repeal ObamaCare, but that doesn't mean they haven't given up their efforts. In the latest such case, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) announced this week that he was filing suit to "make Congress live by the letter of the health care law it imposed on the rest of America."

Johnson's gripe is with a provision that supposedly exempts lawmakers and their staffs from ObamaCare. As Republicans have been claiming for some time, the law handed Congress a unique employer contribution to offset the cost of obtaining coverage through the law's insurance exchanges.

"By arranging for me and other members of Congress and their staffs to receive benefits intentionally ruled out by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the administration has exceeded its legal authority," he wrote Monday in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Johnson is right that Congress is getting treated differently under the law, but he's wrong that Congress is "exempt." And his larger argument is pretty hard to swallow given that the provision he and his GOP colleagues are now railing against stemmed from a Republican idea.

Back in 2010, Sen. Chuck Grassley, (R-Iowa) proposed an amendment that required lawmakers and their employees to buy insurance on the exchange marketplaces. Democrats, confident ObamaCare would work, gladly accepted the idea.

That meant Congress, unlike any other place of work, was being singled out by the law: In essence, it was forcing lawmakers and their staffs off their existing, employer-subsidized coverage and into ObamaCare's new marketplace. (Yes, many people have been sent cancellation notices because their insurance plans did not meet the law's higher standards for coverage, but their specific policies were not deliberately nixed like those for Capitol Hill employees.)

Still, the amendment itself specifically said the government should continue making employer contributions to health care, since not doing so would effectively result in a pay cut for those federal employees. So the Office of Personnel Management in August proposed a rule that would continue the existing payment scheme. In other words, lawmakers and their staffs would keep getting the same subsidy as before, while having to shop for their own coverage.

Hence, just about everyone who has examined the provision has deemed the "exemption" claim blatantly false. Here's National Review's take:

Congressmen and their staff, then, are getting a questionable workaround from the law — but it's from a provision of the law that treated them particularly badly rather than neutrally. The net result of the law and the workaround isn't a "special handout" for congressional employees. [National Review]

So yes, lamwkers and their staffs are being treated differently under the law. But only because of a Republican plan that singled them out in the first place.

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